Friday, October 22, 2010

Farewell to Germany

Friday 22 October 2010

Today is my last day in Germany. Tomorrow I fly back to the USA. How did this happen?

When I was home on leave in August, I (and everyone in my section) fully expected that I would extend for at least one more tour here. I had planned to stay for something like 3-5 years, depending on circumstances. I certainly didn’t expect to be leaving after only one year.

While I was gone in August, they submitted my extension paperwork as planned. Our higher headquarters, however, had plans of their own, and denied the extension. Their reason was “budget cuts” – everybody has to cut back to meet the savings mandated by Secretary of Defense Gates. While it is true that budgets are being cut back, in reality this was also a political move within USAREUR. There was money available for reservist extensions, but the G3 controls those funds and simply cut the DCSENG off so they could keep their own people. It was up to my bosses to fight back in this political tug of war.

I had some inkling this was coming about a week before it was officially announced, and warned them about it, but they were still pretty sanguine about the prospect of my extension being approved. When the official announcement came on Thursday 26 August, they were caught by surprise (almost like deer in the headlights, it seemed to me). They did mount a campaign to get their positions approved, but unfortunately they didn’t move fast enough for my comfort.

Knowing how long it takes to get orders approved, and also knowing how long it would take me to prepare to move and clear the command, I figured I had a maximum of two weeks to find a job if I was to have any hope of remaining on continuous active duty when this tour ends on 31 October.

The same day I heard that my extension was disapproved I went into high gear on a job hunt within the Army. My preferences were to 1) stay in Heidelberg 2) stay in Germany 3) stay in Europe 4) stay on active duty wherever I could get a position (preferably *not* back in the combat zone - three tours in a row there were enough for awhile). My other major objective was to get the new orders effective 1 November, so that when these orders ended on 31 October I’d stay on active duty with no break in service. That way my pay, benefits, leave, etc. would not be disrupted.

It was a hectic week, with emails and phone calls flying fast and furious. As a veteran executive recruiter with 14 years in the business, I know how to conduct a job search. In addition, my experience finding this tour in USAREUR had helped to educate me about the specific nuances of finding a job in the Army. So it was a very busy week, as I contacted every major command headquarters in Europe that might have openings suitable for me. One by one they were eliminated – it seems everyone was being asked to cut back, and hunkering down. It was a “perfect storm” taking place right at the end of one fiscal year before the start of the new one – everyone being asked to economize and justify their positions, and everyone scrambling to save the people already in their sections. Not much opportunity for an outsider to step in.

Of course, I could have volunteered for Afghanistan and been picked up in a heartbeat. There are plenty of openings there. But there are also plenty of “slick sleeves” running around (people with no right-shoulder patch indicating service in a combat zone). Besides, I am frankly just not all that enthusiastic about moving back into an austere environment yet if I can avoid it. That preference eliminated a whole raft of opportunities. Nonetheless, there were other openings out there, and exactly one week from the day I found out I couldn’t stay here I had two job offers in hand – one at TRADOC in Fort Lee, VA, and one at FORSCOM at Fort McPherson, GA (which would move to Fort Bragg NC in the Spring or Summer). Since my bosses weren’t making any headway on keeping me here, I evaluated the two jobs and accepted the one at FORSCOM on the evening of 2 September. They sent me the required forms, etc., which I completed and returned the following week. After some discussions about the detailed mechanics of how I’d come on board, I sent my final paperwork in on 10 September.

I informed my current bosses in USAREUR that I had found a new assignment and told them they could stop tilting at windmills trying to keep me. I think they were a bit taken aback by this – I know they wanted me to stay, and were doing what they could to try to convince their higher that they needed the funding allocation approved for me. But I think they somehow thought they had more time to work on it. I don’t know what they expected – if they thought I’d just sit on my hands and wait, or what. But this is my career and my livelihood, and I can’t just leave it to chance. So I told them I’d do my best to finish strong and leave things in good shape, but that I was committed to the job at FORSCOM.

The people at FORSCOM had the best outline I’d ever seen of the various options, requirements, and restrictions for Reservists serving on active duty (if anyone out there wants a copy, email me and I’ll send it to you). In a nutshell, a Reservist can spend up to 24 months on a mobilization (12 months plus one extension), and up to three subsequent years on COADOS (Contingency Active Duty Operational Support) tours. After serving that total amount of time, if you want to stay on active duty you must demobilize and remobilize to “start the clock” over again.

I have already served two mobilization tours and two COADOS tours, so I was looking at my third COADOS tour at FORSCOM. The fly in the ointment was that in order to make my tour in Qatar contiguous with the end of my tour in Kuwait I had started it early, making it a 15 month tour. As a result I only had 282 days left on my COADOS authorization, and they were looking for at least a 365 day commitment. There was a little more to it than this (PCS vs. TCS, where and when to move, etc. etc.) but the upshot of it all was that it made the most sense for me to go ahead and demobilize through Fort Benning, and then remobilize into FORSCOM. This will give me a clean slate with no restrictions on my service for the next five years. Since they emphasized that they are looking for some stability and longevity in their personnel, this suits me just fine.

With the request for orders duly submitted to my prospective new command, I turned my attention to the requirements for wrapping up my current position and clearing USAREUR. Just under two months may seem like a lot of time, but given all the things that had to happen it was a very hectic period. For one thing, demobilizing takes time, and Fort Benning requires that you report back a week in advance. Once I consulted their website

for the details, I determined that I needed to fly out on Saturday 23. Oct. Next I contacted the Heidelberg CPF (Central Processing Facility) to learn about the clearing process and set appointments for the various required activities. I had previously made plans for a leave in October, which I still intended to take. Stringing all these dates together, we determined that I would start officially clearing on 28 September. So in reality I only had a little over two weeks to close out my job and prepare to brief my successor.

I took care of that (and did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself). I started into the clearing process on 28 Sepember, with the projected schedule as follows:

28 Sept – 7 Oct, clearing and preparation to move.
8-11 Oct – USAREUR Holiday weekend
12-16 Oct – Leave
17-18 Oct – Final preparation to move
18 Oct – U.S. Customs inspection of household goods
19 Oct – Household goods pickup by movers
20 Oct – Ship Jeep to the USA, inspect and clear quarters
21 Oct – “Final out” – i.e. final military clearing process
22 Oct – Buffer day
23 Oct – Pop smoke and fly to Fort Benning
24-31 Oct – Demobilization and return home.

It all went pretty much as planned. Moving is supposed to be one of the most stressful things that people do, and I guess I felt some of that stress. What made it particularly “interesting” was that I had to prepare my stuff to go to four different places. Since Fort McPherson is closing due to the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closing) Commission mandate, I will only serve there temporarily for a few months before moving to Fort Bragg. Since I’ll be TCS on this tour, my household goods can only move under my current PCS orders. Therefore my household goods had to go to Fort Bragg. Since I won’t be there for something like four to six months, I had to send enough stuff to Fort McPherson to live there in temporary mode for awhile (“unaccompanied baggage”). Because there would be a fairly substantial delay in getting my orders processed (a minimum of 60 days after the request hits DA), I needed to be prepared to live at home for a month or more, so I had to send home some civilian clothes and other necessities in a footlocker (U.S. Mail). And of course, I have to carry everything I need to demobilize back with me to Fort Benning. So the run-up to moving day was somewhat stressful – I’m usually pretty calm about things but I have to admit I felt the strain of making sure I didn’t accidentally pack something I was going to need in the wrong shipment, thus putting it out of reach. But I got it done.

One of my major objectives in this clearing process was to try to clear the CIF (Clothing Issue Facility) here in Germany rather than at Fort Benning. The Army issued me a huge pile of stuff when I mobilized, which I’ve been carrying around with me ever since. Some of this clothing is mine to keep, but most of it (things like the backpack, sleeping bag, ammo pouches, canteen, armored vest, helmet, protective mask, entrenching tool, etc. etc. remain Army property and have to be turned back in at some point. ) The CIF at Fort Benning wants you to take it all back and turn it in there. I had a struggle with them when I was first assigned to USAREUR, as they actually wanted me to go there first and turn in all back in. That made no sense to me, so I pushed back and managed to get sent directly here without a side trip to Fort Benning dragging two duffel bags full of stuff to turn in at the CIF.

Now that it was time to leave USAREUR, I was no more enthusiastic about dragging those duffel bags around than I had been when I came here a year ago. Fortunately the CIF here in USAREUR saw things my way, and allowed me to turn everything in here. So now my clothing record is clear and I don’t have to carry anything back with me except my personal clothing and the necessary records and forms. I expect that the people at the Fort Benning CIF may raise a fuss about this, but I really don’t care. The Army has all their stuff back, my clothing record is clear, and I don’t have to schlep a bunch of crap through the airports. :-)

An interesting and somewhat challenging aspect of the clearing process was getting my personally-owned pistol home. Since I was planning to stay here awhile, I was in the process of getting my German WBK (Waffenbesitzkarte, or Weapon Possession License) for sport shooting. This would allow me to purchase firearms and ammunition, store them at home, and transport them to the range for shooting. As a dedicated sport shooter and firearms collector, having been cut off from my firearms since September 2006 has been a heavy burden. I was really looking forward to being able to pursue the sport again here in Germany. To that end I had purchased a .22 pistol at the Rod & Gun Club (it’s a High Standard Supermatic Citation – cool little gun!). I had to leave it in storage at the Rod & Gun Club while I went through the German government’s bureaucratic requirements for getting a license, but at least I could go to the club and shoot regularly during that process. I was well on the way to finishing the requirements when I found out I had to leave, but there was not enough time left to get the license before the end of my tour.

The Catch-22 here was that without that license, I was not allowed to transport my pistol away from the club. Many people have found themselves in this predicament, and have simply abandoned their firearms at the Rod & Gun Club (the pistol I purchased there was one of these). But I am nothing if not persistent when it comes to guns and shooting, and I was determined to get my pistol home. Some phone calls and pointed questioning of various officials revealed that I could go ahead and register the pistol with USAREUR under the restriction that it had to be kept in the arms room (i.e. Rod & Gun Club). Then I had to get an ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) Form 6 approved for importation (minimum processing time – 60 days). Finally, I had to find someone with the appropriate German weapons license (in this case a Jagdschein, or hunting license) who could sign my pistol out from the Rod & Gun Club and deliver it to my house for the movers to pack with my household goods shipment. Fortunately for me one of the guys at the office has a Jagdschein and agreed to do this for me.

I got the ATF Form 6 filled out and submitted. I followed up a week later with a phone call to the ATF, and they were very responsive in expediting the processing of the form and getting it back to me in time for the move. I have to say that demeanor of the nice lady at the other end of the phone stood in sharp contrast to my deeply-held opinions about the dangerous, faceless jackbooted stormtroopers of the universally-despised “F Troop”. I was cordial to the lady, and did appreciate the service, but never lost sight of the fact that these bureaucrats are part of a vast machine that is primarily devoted to stripping us our gun rights and to putting us in prison or killing us if we get in their way. I’m sure there were friendly, helpful individuals in the Nazi bureaucracy as well, but that didn’t make them legitimate or respectable. Similarly, the fact that these people were helpful doesn’t diminish my opposition to their very existence or that of the laws they enforce. As I once read on a T-shirt: “Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms should be a convenience store, not a government agency”. :-)

Another interesting process was shipping my Jeep (“POV” - Privately Owned Vehicle, in government-speak). You are only allowed to ship a POV at government expense if it is specified on your orders, and normally this is only done if you have at least a two year tour. Since this was a one year tour, I was not entitled to ship a POV. Back when I bought it, the powers-that-be explained to me that when I got my extension, we could put the POV shipment authorization in the extension order and I’d be able to send it home. So I bought an almost-new Jeep, fully intending to send it home. Surprise – no extension, no POV shipment authorization. Now what?

At home I have a 1999 Jeep Wrangler with 175,000 miles on it. Here I have a 2008 Jeep Wrangler with 15,000 miles on it. Not a hard question to decide which one I’d rather drive. But shipping it home at my own expense was still not an easy decision. It cost nearly $2500 to do so. I suppose that according to a very strict economic analysis, it might have made more sense to sell this one here and get another one once I got home. But that analysis would depend on a lot of assumptions. Since I got this Jeep with less than 6,000 miles on it from someone who was apparently just as dedicated to proper maintenance as I am, and since I’ve put some custom accessories on it and become attached to it, there were some objective as well as some emotional reasons impelling me to keep it. Not only do I like *this* Jeep, there was no guarantee I’d get a good price for it, nor any guarantee I’d find one this good for as little money once I got home. Besides, selling it would take time, and then I’d have to rent a car, and…, and…, and….call it rationalization if you like, but I decided to keep my Jeep and ship it home. So that was a process, which I learned about and went through. The most “interesting” part of that process was when I examined the title document and realized that the seller had improperly completed the transfer to me. She seems to be gone from Europe now, so I was on pins and needles for a couple days until customs examined my documents and determined that they were sufficient to prove clear title and allow me to ship the vehicle. So I had it shipped to Atlanta along with my unaccompanied baggage, where it will be waiting for me when I start my new job in December.

The process of clearing before my leave started involved finding out the information about the above requirements and making all the necessary appointments and other arrangements, as well as all the other clearing activities that needed to be accomplished. Now, to a military person who’s been through the process, the term “clearing” immediately communicates a whole constellation of activities, with a concomitant understanding of both the physical and psychological implications of the process. But (as I have been informed) to an uninitiated civilian, the concept is a little mystifying. How can it be that complicated and take that long? What’s the big deal?

Basically, what clearing involves is going around to every military and civilian support activity in the community, telling them you’re leaving, and getting them to certify on your clearing papers (via a signature and rubber stamp) that you have been there and complied with whatever process or requirements they have. At the library this means you have no books checked out. At the clothing issue facility it means you have turned in all your gear and settled up financially for anything you may have lost. Medical records, dental records, housing, finance, vehicle registration, battalion headquarters, company headquarters, and a whole raft of places have to sign and stamp your form. Some have to be completed before others can begin. Some have limited hours, or will only clear you a certain number of days before you depart. Some are a two-minute process, some take hours on end. It’s neither simple nor fast, but it is inescapably necessary before you can depart. I did as much of this as I possibly could before going on leave, so that my last week could be a smooth as possible.

Sidebar on my personal activities – as the timeline indicated, my trip to the border ("Cold War Memories") was on the weekend after I started this process. That was my last free weekend alone in Germany. I’d still like write about the rest of it, but it doesn’t really fit here. We’ll see. On the following weekend, my girlfriend arrived for a visit (I know, we’re not boys and girls anymore, but “ladyfriend” sounds way too stiff and formal). We had a delightful nine-day interlude. We spent the first night and day in Frankfurt, then came back to Heidelberg for a couple days. On Monday we drove to Prague, which is a really cool city. I highly recommend it as a destination. We walked around the city, taking our time seeing the sights and spending a lot of time just sitting in cafes and restaurants reading our books (well, our Nooks, but that’s a different story). It was a very relaxing week. By the time we returned on Friday, I was thoroughly unwound and felt ready to finish preparing for the move. Of course, I got wound right back up again once we got back and I saw all my piles of stuff waiting to be sorted, but it was a wonderful last experience in Europe for us, and I’m really glad we got to do it.

This past week played out more or less exactly as planned. The movers came Tuesday and took all my stuff. After shipping my POV on Wednesday morning, I rented a car and then cleared my quarters. I cleared vehicle registration that afternoon in preparation for my “Final Out” day on Thursday. After that day was done I stopped at the post office and mailed back all the files I won’t need at Fort Benning so I wouldn’t have to carry them around. I took care of the last couple of details at work, and settled in to enjoy my last hours in Germany.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a long walk up in the hills above Heidelberg. Last night I had a nice dinner in a local Gaststaette. I woke up today and had a nice breakfast, then set out to enjoy the day. I returned my rental car, then walked downtown. I had a nice lunch in a favorite restaurant, then walked up to the Philosopher’s Way one last time. Teresa and I had a spot up there that we called “Our Gate”, so I sat there awhile smoking my pipe and thinking about the last year and everything that’s happened. Then I walked down, took a streetcar back to the hotel to pick up my computer, and settled in at a café to write this blog entry.

Tonight after I post this I’ll have one last meal at the little restaurant up the street where I had my first meal after returning to Germany almost a year ago. I have been feeling a little bit wistful about leaving Germany. It’s earlier than I thought it would be, and it’s probably the last time I’ll be able to live here for an extended period. I speak fluent German, am very comfortable with the culture, and feel almost as “at home” here as I do in the USA. So the opportunity to return here to live and work once more has been very special and meaningful to me.

But I’m not as reluctant to leave as I thought I might be. I have found during this process that I’m excited about the change. Although I certainly have some regrets about leaving here, the opportunity to go back to the USA and be closer to Teresa and to my family is a very enjoyable prospect. It opens up a whole set of possibilities that seemed out of reach only a couple of months ago. Despite the fact that I love living in Germany, I feel ready to leave – it just feels right.

Tomorrow at 0600 the airport shuttle will arrive to take me to Frankfurt Airport, and I’ll be moving on to a new chapter in my life, both personally and professionally.

Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland! Es war eine schoene Zeit.

Mood: Reflective
Music: Nena – In Meinem Leben (from "Made in Germany")


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